Friday, October 24, 2014

Video held for questioning in mysterious disappearance of radio star

The glorious sight of a radio blowing up.

Behold the glory of Wa Wa Nee.
I don't hate the radio. Really, I don't. When I was an adolescent back in those musty, backwards days known as the 1980s and 1990s, I actually cherished the radio. It was, along with MTV, where you went to hear the latest in rock and pop, an essential part of any clueless white kid's life in the Middle West. In those days, the go-to stations for teens in the Flint, MI area were WIOG and the ever-so-slightly hipper WWCK. I used to set my alarm on Saturday mornings so I could hear the beginning of America's Top 40 with Casey Kasem. I think Casey's show ran on WIOG, but I wouldn't bet my paycheck on it. With commercial breaks and long distance dedications and such, the show actually ran for several hours. There was no way to listen to all of it. But I definitely wanted to hear the beginning of the show (numbers 40 through 30 ), because that's when you'd hear the newest hits -- the ones that had just crawled into the lower reaches of the Top 40. Sometimes, a song would only stick around for a week or two and wouldn't get past #30. Those were some of the tracks I found most fascinating of all. I was intrigued by the phenomenon of getting so close to the big time without actually making it. In 1987, for instance, there was an upbeat ditty called "Sugar Free" by an Australian funk-pop outfit improbably named Wa Wa Nee. The song peaked at #35 and was Wa Wa Nee's only appearance on the countdown. Casey Kasem only had to say the name "Wa Wa Nee" for a week or two at the most. He'd always mention which songs had fallen off the charts during a particular week; it was always a moment of somber reflection for me when he read that list. "Sugar Free" was nothing special -- I barely remember it now -- but I went ahead and bought (with my parents' money, natch) a cassette of the group's one album anyway. Did I ever even listen to it all the way through? Probably not. It was just part of my weird Top 40 fetish back then.

I listen to a lot of Top 40 radio now, too, though this time it isn't by choice. The sound of a CHR (contemporary hits radio) station wafts across the bank of cubicles at my workplace each morning. I don't know where it comes from, but it's unmistakable nevertheless. The songs are distinguishable, but the rest of the audio registers in my mind's ear as unintelligible background slush. The station must be somewhere in Chicago, since I toil in the Loop, about a block away from the structure formerly known as the Sears Tower. From what I can make out of what I hear, the chuckling deejays banter back and forth, take phone calls from listeners, run some sort of daily contest, and play lots and lots of prerecorded sound effects. I don't know what these purpose these interludes serve, but it involves a lot of loud boinging and twanging noises. And in between, of course, there is the music. This being Top 40, they're drawing from a very small pool of songs and playing them over and over, several times a day, for months on end. I have heard "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift and "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea more times than any human ever should. A few months ago, I grew to hate songs like Pharrell Williams' "Happy" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" with a stubborn, iron-clad passion. Some nights, I still wake up with "Roar" by Katy Perry echoing in my head. That song is my Vietnam. Keep in mind, this is at 7:30 in the morning. Nobody wants to hear Pink or Ke$ha at that hour of the day. Not even their own mothers.

Radio, as a medium, has given us lots of great things. For me, it's Bob & Ray, The Stan Freberg Show, and good ol' Dr. Demento. I listen to a lot of podcasts these days. That's not precisely radio, but it's the bastard stepchild of radio at least. The only time I voluntarily listen to regular, over-the-air FM radio these days is when I'm in the car. Then it's just NPR or maybe some classical or jazz station where the disc jockeys talk in those half-whispery, golf-announcer voices. I mentioned Stan Freberg a few sentences back, though. He was -- and maybe still is -- a great believer in radio. In fact, he wrote this wonderful little advertising ditty on behalf of the radio industry. It's sung by Sarah Vaughn and conducted and arranged by Quincy Jones. Give it a whirl, won't you?

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